NJ: Restaurants

From Scratch: Excellent Italian restaurant in Ridgewood, NJ

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There's a little gem of a restaurant tucked away on E. Ridgewood Ave in Ridgewood. With its limited menu and lack of the typical Italian-American treats, From Scratch might not be for everyone. But if you are interested in Italian cooking influenced by the cooking of that country, you will probably enjoy the place. Judging by the crowds and hard-to-get reservations, plenty of people already "get it."

I could have very well been sitting in Italy the other day, as I enjoyed my lunch, with the sounds of the Italian language in the background (the owners are from Rome). The waitress that day was also from Italy. Near Napoli, as it turned out. More importantly than where she's from is that she convinced me to order an Italian soft drink.

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Typically I'll drink only wine or beer or water with food, but as she described this drink as being made with bitter orange, my interest was piqued. I'm sure glad I gave this stuff a try. Contrasted with the one-note sweet glop the passes as soda in the US, the Italian version is much more dynamic, much more interesting, and much more delicious. This stuff is agrodolce (bittersweet, as you know). It tasted not much unlike an Americano, a cocktail which I routinely drink like it's my job (equal parts sweet vermouth and Campari, topped with sparkling water and served with a slice of orange). It's made by Lurisia and called Chinotto.

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Oh the food you wonder? I had a wonderful panino with bresaola, parmesan (sliced by knife), arugula, and a touch of dressing. This is a perfectly balanced sandwich with quality ingredients. Contrasted with typical sandwiches, which too often consist of too-much mediocre bread, and too many bland fillings.  This sandwich packed all sorts of flavor and texture, all with being a sensible (to my mind) size.

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White Maple Cafe: Ridgewood, NJ restaurant

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White Maple Cafe opened without me realizing it. I happened to be walking by one day, after a fine meal at from scratch, and there it was. A good-looking restaurant with an interesting menu. Who knew?

I popped in for a quick lunch the other day to see what was going on. I liked what I saw and enjoyed what I had, for the most part.

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Penang Malaysian and Thai Cuisine: Lodi, NJ

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The food of Malaysia is one of the few SE Asian cuisines that I've never warmed up to. I think this had something to do with a Malaysian restaurant taking the place of my beloved Good 'n Plenty bar in Hoboken some years back. Damn them.

More realistically, my indifference was probably because the combination of Thai and Chinese and Indian never really did anything for me. Flavors and dishes seemed watered down, to my mind, with no real identity. That, of course, is some ignorant shit. Malaysian cuisine isn't hindered by its many influences. It is elevated by its many influences. I'm finally coming around.

This boring story starts about a year ago when we, on a whim, stopped at Penang in Lodi on the way back from a miserable dinner somewhere. Just for a drink. We figured it would be horrible and we'd get a story out of it. As it turned out, the bartender was an interesting character, the bar was well-stocked, the menu looked very appealing, and we had a grand ol' time. We knew we'd be back. But then we totally forgot about the place. Until this week.

We started with achat (pictured above), which is a pickled vegetable dish with a slightly sweet peanut gravy. Holy cow. This dish is right up my alley. Crisp, bright vegetables, crunchy pieces of peanut, spices, a bit of heat, acid. This dish hits all the marks. We cleaned the plate and I wanted more. Which is a good thing, because another dish we ordered included more.

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Best dishes: of 2015

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Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.

But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.

So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.

Enough explaining. On with it.

Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.

 

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Momma's Boy Burgers: A Shake Shack-ish place in Wayne, NJ

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It's beyond evident that Shake Shack was an inspiration for the people who opened Momma's Boy, a burger/hot dog joint in Wayne, NJ. It's clear right down to the wood/metal interior and the logo. And who can blame them for taking some cues from a place like Shake Shack. Shake Shack does a pretty damned good job at selling hamburgers and fries.

The people behind Momma's Boy were certainly paying attention when they pulled this place together.  The burger is very similar to the burger at Shake Shack. Same griddled potato roll, same style of "special sauce" (may0/ketchup-based), same type of melty American cheese, and the same size. But all of that means nothing if the burger meat isn't tasty, and the execution is flawed. Do they pull it off?

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Joyce Chinese: River Edge, NJ, the same as it used to be: excellent

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From the various rumblings on the web claiming how Joyce Chinese, the barely 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ, "isn't as good as it used to be," you'd think they changed the menu and dumbed down the food to appeal to bland American tastes. From my admittedly unscientific analysis, I conclude that that's all a bunch of cahcah (cahcah means crap). The restaurant continues to serve mind- and tongue-numbingly good Sichuan food.

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Novo Mediterranean: Ridgewood, NJ [CLOSED]

Update (2017/7): Novo had been sold and closed. A bit loss for Ridgewood's dining scene.

North Jersey has no shortage of restaurants focusing on what might be considered "Mediterranean cuisine." Ridgewood alone boasts several, ranging from good (Lisa's Mediterranean and Mediterraneo), to cookie-cutter (casually glances at It's Greek To Me). So when I saw another restaurant billing itself as "Mediterranean" was opening on Chestnut Street, I wasn't overcome with anticipation. In fact, I was only vaguely interested in the prospect. I'm here to tell you that I was a moron.

After my first meal at Novo Mediterranean, I proclaimed it "excellent," "one of the most exciting new restaurants in the area," and noted that it "has potential to become a favorite." 

After the next meal I upped the ante, stating "Chef Kahlon is a stone cold killer," and "serious effing business here."  It took me a while, but I am no longer (as much of) a moron. Novo is, indeed, irrefutably, one of the most exciting new restaurants to hit North Jersey in a long time. After three meals it is, without a doubt, a favorite. I cannot imagine ever tiring of Chef Kahlon's cooking--although his dashing good-looks are starting to grate on me.

I should talk about the food.

Novo bread

The first thing that hit our table was a loaf of house-made bread. A steaming log of olive oil coated, airy bread, sprinkled with sea salt. The bread alone is reason to return. I can't imagine how good a sandwich made with this stuff would be. Throw some ham in there and call it a day. If at the moment that bread hits the table you don't realize that you're in the hands of an excellent chef, you'll only have consider the punch of flavor packed into house-made za'atar to be convinced. I couldn't figure out what was in it, and I don't care; some things are too good to ponder. 

I'm bloviating enough as it is, and I know you people have a very short attention span, so I'll just move on to some photos and brief comments.

Novo salad

This salad was popping-bright, with crunchy, fresh vegetables, appropriately dressed, and adorned with fried chickpeas and shaved cheese. This dish may very well encapsulate Chef Kahlon's approach to cooking. Lots of exciting acid, herbs, fresh ingredients, and textural contrast. He cooks like I like to eat.

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Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ: opening in Paramus

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Update: it's open.

It seems like forever ago that the Korean restaurant on Paramus Road, in Paramus, closed. I forget the name, but it was largely unexceptional, and a bit of a dump.

It didn't take too long for work to begin on the empty building, and that work has been going on for quite some time. Over a year I'd say. They gutted the place, and I'm guessing invested in everything from a new roof to a new kitchen. All along yielding no hint as to what type of restaurant might be moving in.

I kind of thought it would be an upscale Greek fish restaurant, what with that kind of money being poured into the structure (not to mention the liquor license). I thought wrong.

Indeed there's now a new sign on the building announcing Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ. Korean wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for this space, but it's certainly a good thing overall. Anything but an Italian-American restaurant, quite frankly, would be fine with me. Another bullet dodged.

While the idea of a Korean restaurant with a liquor license doesn't really excite me (I know of few Korean restaurants with interesting beer lists or cocktail programs), I did see a bunch of new grill hoods being placed over each of the tables. So they've got that going for them. 

I'm looking forward to taking my first slab of short rib and throwing it on the flame, with an OB Lager I assume.


A quick peek inside Fish Ridgewood: Ridgewood, NJ

Fish Ridgewood, which is bound to open some point this year in the old Bank of America building, has been very open to sharing pictures of the progress on their Facebook page. But that didn't stop me from poking my nosy face in there to take a few pics.

As expected, their goal of opening "mid-May" wasn't realistic, or met. But I'll hold tight, all the while hoping that the place will be exceptional. I have a really good feeling about it. At the very least it should look stunning.

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Wolfgang's Steakhouse: Somerville, NJ

Wolfgangs steak for two

A sunny day and a restaurant filled with windows is the ideal scenario to snap a few pics of food. Nothing beats all of that natural light for sharp, brilliant, clear photos.

Unfortunately for me and you, my cohorts picked the darkest table in the place for our lunch. It was literally the only table in the restaurant without a light fixture over it. I know this because I'm obsessed with such things, and checked. And so, the photos here suck even more than usual. But I will soldier on, because this is important business here.

By now we all know the story of Wolfgang's. Wolfgang was "head waiter" at Peter Luger for years, opened up his own place on Park Ave South in Manhattan, essentially with the same exact menu as Luger, went on to open another restaurant in Tribeca, and then I blinked and he's got places all over the globe. Including, curiously to moi, Somerville, NJ. He was so darned busy opening restaurants that he forgot to grab the .com domain. .net is so silly.

We ordered a chiefly typical meal here: bacon, oysters, steak for two, creamed spinach, German potatoes.

Wolfgangs bacon

The bacon is as good as it is at any of the Luger clones. Here's the thing about that bacon: it's just bacon. It's hardly an exceptional product. It is from the belly of the hog. It's not "Canadian bacon" (an actual thing), regardless of what the menu says or how often clueless food writers perpetuate that ridiculous falsehood. It's bacon. It's good because it's salty and smoky and fatty. And I have no problem with that reality.

You'll not find an exciting selection of oysters at Wolfgang's. The menu says "oysters." In the NYC area, that typically means Blue Point (Blue Point must produce an awful lot of oysters, considering how many menus they turn up on). Of course, if you mention oysters to your server, they'll likely kick into up-sell mode. "We can make a nice seafood tower for you,"  to which I typically respond "would you please just screw the fuck off? Thanks."

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